Spotted Towhees were the elusive ground foragers I never saw enough of in the Bay Area. I’d catch a glimpse as they scuttled under the scrub. Or, occasionally, snapped a photo of one heralding the morning light in the thickets of Tilden Park. My best Spotted Towhee sighting was the trusting bird who let me photograph an afternoon bath up in the Berkeley hills.

In the Seattle neighborhood Hugh and I now call home, the Spotted Towhees are out in force, rarely furtive, almost always foraging in open view with the Dark-eyed Juncos and sparrows. I see them more often now, zipping low across the suburban road in the last light of day, moving from the low cover on one side to the brush on the other. The speed limit here is 25 and if no one’s behind me, I go even slower, based on how often I’ve seen a towhee or a Robin just miss the grill of a truck or SUV.

Yesterday evening, one such Spotted Towhee wasn’t as lucky as the rest. I was home brewing up a Mexican feast, ready to add a whole lot of El Jimador to my homemade lime mixer spiked with cayenne. Limes were juiced, avocados scooped, tequila bottled cracked . . . I heard my girlfriend’s footfall in the hallway. I tried to ignore the urgency in that sound, but no luck. She burst into the kitchen and uttered the two fateful words: “injured animal.”

Damn. I’m a bleeding heart rescuer, but sometimes a reluctant one. Rescues, big or small, never happen at convenient times, so you give up on being the socially dependable one — for the sake of being dependable on another level.

Towhee Rescue Intervention

I grabbed my gloves, a towel, my mini, abridged rescue kit and she drove me up the road to where a Spotted Towhee sat on the pavement, unable to fly or stand properly. I thought it would be an easy capture, but it’s a frightful thing to have a huge human come at you with bare hands. So, even this disabled bird managed to squeeze himself into the underbrush of an ivy plant wrapped around a tree trunk, hoping, I’m sure, this monster would go away. I’ve never been so grateful as I was in this moment, for my hospital training with all of those tiny birds. I lifted him into the soft lining of the paper grocery bag (a good, makeshift rescue vessel).

I checked him to make sure that he was, indeed, incapacitated. Then, I realized I had all of 20 minutes to drive the 45 minutes it would take to reach the nearest wildlife hospital before it closed. I don’t know if it was simply the abject goodness of the people at PAWS wildlife center last night — or some serendipitous astrological alignment — or if this was just one lucky Towhee. But, the PAWS people said bring him on in, allowing for the extra time it would take for us to get from here to there. So we did. And we made it. When I heard the familiar instructions, asking for a setup for a Spotted Towhee — the same setup I’d be getting if I were at my hospital after hours — it was pure comfort zone.

Leaving Him in Good Hands

I can’t tell you how it felt to leave the bird without a hint of imperative. That is, it wasn’t me behind the counter, putting my apron back on to help with these last-minute meds and care. It was simultaneously liberating and heartbreaking. Liberating, in that I knew my towhee had a much better chance here than in a pet carrier in my bathroom overnight. But it was also heartbreaking because I’m so accustomed to being a part of the process –a process that, last night, was truncated at “here he is” and “thank you!” I didn’t have access to his file or even his file number, to check up on him.

As I was leaving, my girlfriend pointed to a sign on the wall that said “Join the PAWS Wildlife Transport Team” — driving animals from the Seattle shelter out to Lynnwood. I’ve been putting it off, thinking I need to be settled in, to have a place called “home,” to get my schedule and proverbial ducks in a row, to take a break from the craziness my life became down in the Bay Area. But last night made me think that the lure (and allure) of my former life will get the best of me sooner than I’d anticipated. With a Washington Driver’s License in hand and a new set of low-flying Towhees in my midst, I probably won’t last long as a layperson in this world of Northwest wildlife.

A huge ‘thank you’ to PAWS for accommodating us under the circumstances. I couldn’t be more grateful for the kindness and dedication. They’re a great local organization to support if you’re interested in the welfare of both wild and domestic animals. PAWS provides aid and care for both.

Towhee photographed at Reifel Bird Sanctuary in British Columbia — soft vignette blur applied to outer branches.